In 1954, a new magazine appeared out of Bombay with Nissim Ezekiel at its helm. ‘The magazine was called Quest (“a quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas”) and it went on to live a respectable two decades, until Indira Gandhi’s imposition of a state of emergency caused it to collapse.
The Best of Quest is a collection of some of the mast striking essays poems and story to-have appeared in the pages of the magazine. Quest was an intellectual rite of passage many of the boldface names that light to our newspapers magazines journals and television screens today first made their mark with piece in here Reading.
The again is illuminating in absolutely current sense Likens counterparts (Transition in Africa Encounter in the USA & UK and Quadrant in Australia) it fought for cultural freedom’ term not free of complication given the dirty tricks of the cold war Unlike them Quest had a liberal heart anti an ideological free wheeling life.
Then we Forgot all about
New relive twenty of the finest years in India political social and imaginative life with The Best of Quest Watch a country growing up world split right down the middle heart this of path breaking scholars, iconoclastic Writer and committed dreamers Enter the charmed circle.
This is a landmark volume that illuminates the political and social history of independent India as no other book can or will.
Drawn from the pages of the pioneering periodical Quest, it features writers famous and obscure, Indian and foreign, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and atheist. They include poets like Agha Shahid All and Nissim Ezekiel, sociologists like Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar, polemicists like Dilip Chitre’ and the peerless Hamid Dalwai. The range of themes — from politics to religion and warfare to literature — matches the range of writers, who, despite their variety within, ate united by a commitment to liberal values and stylish prose. I will turn and return to this book, and so should all literary-minded and liberal minded Indians.
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Like every major archaeological discovery, The Best of Quest is the result of a rearrangement of space. The space in question was my parents’ home, and the rearrangement was a polite way of describing their efforts to save a mouldy hundred-year--old structure from collapsing. This was no tectonic shift, but secret treasures emerged anyway: useless mechanical gadgets from pre-liberalised India, suitcases of scarlet letters from my youth, and trunk upon trunk of magazines packed with neem-leaves, folded for ever, and despatched to eternity in black metal coffins with the imprint of my father’s then employer, the Indian Navy Forced to reassess their long-standing love-affair with storage, my parents reluctantly parted with their collection. They asked me to give the magazines away to a public library.
For months, they sat in a pile by my bed. I knew of them, of course; I had even read books about some of the more celebrated magazines among them. But we were essentially strangers. To me, Encounter, Imprint and Quest meant little more than a footnote in history One night, in a desperate attempt to prolong procrastination, after having tried to watch Karate Dog — a film whose protagonist is fox-terrier capable of human speech and martial arts — and failed, I turned to Quest. The issue I picked up was Quest 65, from April 1970, and the essay I encountered was The Coffee-Brown Boy looks at the Black Boy by J.S. Saxena. The planets were aligned. I was hooked. Here was a man writing four decades ago about Browns and Blacks, jazz and World War II, smoky bars in Lucknow and James Baldwin in Paris — and with such style and such verve that I was almost afraid to go on. After the first sentence, I wanted to hug him; by the end of essay, I wanted to be him.
And that is how I came to Quest. We will perhaps never know enough about the other cold war, the cultural cold war — the battle for the hearts and minds of people in the outer suburbs of utopia, which is to say, Kampala and Sydney and Bombay. In the pages of this book, you will be reminded that Quest was an ideologically free-wheeling enterprise; in certain quarters of the Internet, you will be told that the magazine was a CIA plot. (To be fair, the Indian journal that leads this charge also dismisses the entire canon of modern art as CIA strategy to deflect the masses from “social concerns.” To be fair to the publisher of that journal, the Research Unit for Political Economy or RUPE, there is a wonderful logic to both these charges.) The truth is that Quest was all this and more: it lived and thrived in a milieu constituted by Encounter in the USA and UK, Quadrant in Australia, Transition in Africa, even Imprint in India. Those interested in this milieu will enjoy Peter Coleman’s excellent book, The Liberal Conspiracy — The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Post-War Europe, by far the most authoritative account of the cultural cold war.
As for me, I’m holding out for a book that might never, in fact, be written. I have a friend called Michael Vazquez, who, for a long time, edited the revived version of Transition. All he has so far is a title: The Literary Agency — How the CIA created World Literature. Since this is the kind of joke that could get me into trouble, I should reiterate that there is no evidence that editors of publications supported by the Congress for Cultural Freedom knew of the CIA connection, and also that the imbroglio is frankly and fully discussed within the pages of this book. Michael’s title is merely playing with the distance between intention and consequence. Two decades on from the end of the big bad chill, who could have imagined that one effect of imperialism would be the idiosyncrasy and iconoclasm you now hold in your hands?
My own journey with Quest is rather different. I remember the magazine in our house when I was a child, along with Onlooker and Imprint and The Illustrated Weekly of India. But it was more than these other magazines it was special because my mother, Nazura, had worked there as a young woman in the 1950s. I was told that she had been the assistant to a great man, a man named Nissim Ezekiel. All this added immeasurably to my mother’s glamour but it also gave a certain sheen to the magazine — I felt as if I was entitled to some part of it, that some part of it belonged exclusively to me, 8-year-old Arshia.
Thirty years later, I met another great man who edited Quest. His name was Dilip Chitre and although Quest was now a shadow of its former sparkling self, Diip continued to work at it doggedly sourcing material, pushing circulation, checking proofs, dreaming about creating an online edition. Dilip asked me to join the Editorial Board, which basically meant that I did a lot of proofing and copy- editing. My mother was thrilled at this little twist of fate that had brought us fall circle — her daughter to the same job that she had held fifty years ago. She had worked in the legendary Army and Navy Building at Kala Ghoda in Bombay. I worked at home on my computer, occasionally meeting Dilip at his apartment in Pune over delicious lunches that his wife, Viju, would produce at the drop of a hat, which, often enough, was Dilip’s characteristic beret.
When we knew that this book was possible, Dilip was already unwell and hugely diminished in terms of energy and verve. You will notice his declining spirit in his last essay, which closes this volume. Even as Achal and I asked him to write the concluding essay, we ourselves were captivated by a Quest contributor mysteriously called ‘D.’‘D’ was witty, acerbic, irreverent, bright, insightful — he wrote about movies and art and books and life. It was no surprise, actually, when Dilip confessed to being ‘D’ — for he was all those things; witty acerbic, irreverent, bright, oh so very bright, and insightful.
Here is what Dilip says as he reveals himself in that last essay: “Now the column is dead and my pseudonym will hardly ring a bell. Few readers of the current age would care to dig through the archived coffins in the expired journal’s graveyard to find ‘D’. But I know it’s me — of another time and season — grinning back at my present self, an older wiser and infinitely more boring self.”
Dilip passed away during the time it took to put this book together. Fortunately for us, he was wrong in what has essentially become his own epitaph. Thanks to this volume his column live on his pseudonym will ring another setoff bells and more than a few readers of the current age will be presented with the treasures of archived coffins in this expired journal graveyard. You might have been older and wiser dilip but you were never boring. Rest in peace bright star in quest’s firmament.
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